A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the webwewant festival about two key tests I would use to hold this newly elected Tory Government to account on digital Government.
Firstly who owns public sector data? Before the election Labour committed to enabling citizens to own and control data about them held by Government. Data is becoming one of the most sought after ‘commodities’ in the world, driving new business models and attracting investment. The Government will be faced with a serious of choices on how they collect and treat our data and if we are not vigilant citizens will see their data nationalised away from them.
The second question is who has access to digital services. GDS have done a great job in putting services online, making them more agile and responsive, but the last government forgot digital inclusion for most of its tenure. When it did finally get round to thinking of inclusion, it demonstrated a wholesale poverty of ambition, its target for inclusion was 90%. And so apparently it remains although when I asked Matthew Hancock that question he chose to answer with a mathematical test.
Not to support people to get online whilst making it mandatory that some key services are accessed online is a recipe for frustration and misery. I regularly see in my surgeries constituents who are forced to go to foodbanks to survive, having lost all benefits because they cannot sign on, or do their mandatory work searches, online. That is unfair and a massive stain on technology, turning it from a force for good to a force of oppression.
I might have thought I’d have to wait some time to have my tests ‘tested’. But no. With the ink on the Queen’s speech barely drythe Government has given me a choice of examples on where it is falling down.
Let’s take the recent announcement that Government is investing in the “first ever cross-Whitehall contract to monitor what people Tweet, post and blog about the Govt”. The Independent reported that five companies have been approved to keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and blogs and provide daily reports to Whitehall on what’s being said in “real time” . Now in addition to the question of whether the Government should be doing this, there is the concern over what it is going to do with the data it collects.
Twitter and Facebook are of course in the public domain (though not everybody fully realises that) but much of the other data Government holds on you is not – is there going to be the possibility to tie up your tweet on HMRC customer service to your late tax return? Facebook sets out in its terms and conditions that ‘you own your own data’ though it does not clarify what that actually means. But Government is behind Facebook in not even setting out any principles
And now it is adding social media to all the data it has on you. We need some principles and fast.
Now you might argue that the Personalised Health and Care 2020 report published late last year in the long wake of the care.data disaster might provide such principles. And indeed it does talk of a framework to “build and sustain public trust”. But it is only for health data and it revolves around a new National Data Guardian for health and care, (the excellent) Dame Fiona Caldicott. Why then in yesterday’s announcement on “using technology, data and information to transform the delivery of England’s health and social care services” is Caldicott not mentioned once? Nor for that matter are privacy or consent…
The third example comes appropriately from HMRC. The new marriage tax allowance was in the news recently because of ‘IT fiasco’ according to the Daily Mail. As is often the case, this is not an IT fiasco, but a system doing what it was told to do by its designers, ie to verify online identities for a digital-only service. The problem stems from a failure to identify who the main group of ‘service users’ are – not in turns out young, digitally driven newly weds but low income pensioners. That is one of the demographics least likely to be comfortable online, so the fact that the tax break is only available online with support for it effectively only online [the telephone help line involving waiting periods of 45 minutes] meant that hundreds of financially struggling pensioners are left throwing themselves against the digital by default barricades. Not an outcome to improve the reputation of government services or technology.
Tory failure on data and inclusion show they have yet to learn from their failures in the last Parliament.